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Face-to-Face With a Polar Bear in the Arctic

By Kitson Jazynka for National Geographic Polar Bear Watch

NG Explorer Paul Rose says the Arctic is his spiritual home (Photograph courtesy Jonathan Renouf).
NG Explorer Paul Rose says the Arctic is his spiritual home (Photograph courtesy Jonathan Renouf).

When you’re on an expedition in the Arctic, National Geographic Explorer Paul Rose says, you should always be prepared for polar bears. It’s a good idea to have cooking pots ready to bang together, or a flare gun to discourage a bear from coming near. But on a recent night in June, when a polar bear landed on his tent, Rose was sound asleep.

“It was just one of those things,” Rose said. “We hadn’t seen any polar bears, and I was just going to have a short sleep because we had so much to do.” Rose and a few others had arrived earlier than the rest of the team to set up camp on the northern tip of Canada’s Baffin Island on a 50-foot-wide beach for an expedition. Their mission? To study and document the future of the Arctic.

“It’s so beautiful and remote,” Rose said. “It’s one of the last truly wild places on Earth.”

Wild it is. At 2 a.m. that night, Rose awoke to the sound of his own sudden exhale and what he describes as an incredibly heavy weight on the left side of his head and shoulder. “It was so heavy on me, but also soft,” he said. “I instantly knew it couldn’t have been a caribou. That huge, heavy thing had to be a polar bear. It was stretching my head and shoulder apart, like a chiropractor.”

Rose slipped out of his sleeping bag and grabbed a flare gun. The bear moved off, but it was too dark to see where the giant predator had gone. “I didn’t want to blow a flare through my tent,” Rose said. “So I sat there listening, just a small naked person in the middle of the tundra with a flare gun.” Cautiously, he opened his tent’s zipper a few inches and found the bear looking at him from about two feet away.

“It was just an enormous head and these two lovely dark eyes staring at me,” Rose said. “The bear didn’t look stressed or aggressive, just very big.” Instinct told him not to make noise or fire the flare gun. The best move, he decided, was to stay calm and quiet.

To slow his heartbeat down, Rose stared into the bear’s eyes. After a minute or so, the bear wandered off among the other tents. Rose put on his clothes. About half an hour later, the bear ambled off through the fog into the sea ice. As the sun came up, Rose and the team, including a local Inuit guide, measured the footprints and determined it was a likely a female bear, probably between 700 and 800 pounds.

How does Rose explain the heart-racing run-in? “It was less of an attack and more of a chance encounter,” he said. “I think she was just looking for seals.” Rose had a very sore shoulder, but his tent, which is now repaired, is the only thing bearing scars.

“My tent will last a little longer and so will I,” said Rose, who believes any time spent in the Arctic is well worth the risks.

“For me, it’s the sense of freedom, wildness, and simplicity—and hope and promise for the future,” he said. “It’s an ideal workplace but, for me, it’s also a spiritual home.”

In addition to the polar bear, the crew has encountered caribou, seals, seabirds, a narwhal, belugas, and bowhead whales and their calves. And while most of the animals keep a safe distance, for the rest of the expedition, the team has established a 24-hour bear safety watch. Rose said he’s slept great ever since.

Kitson Jazynka is a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @KitsonJ.